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You’ll feel right at home during an adventure with Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience.
Photo: PR (Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience)
Some folks call Elko County’s Ruby Mountains the “Yosemite of Nevada.” Others refer to the rugged, glacier-carved range as “Nevada’s Swiss Alps.” Joe Royer calls them home.
For the past 30 years, he has been happily escorting guests around his “house” via his tour company, Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience. The backcountry ski and snowboard service is based in Lamoille, a ranching community 20 miles south of Elko. “It’s sort of an oxymoron,” Royer says on a January evening, kicking back in the common room of the 10,000-square-foot Reds Ranch lodge after a day of guiding visitors around the Rubies. “I mean, who would have thought it was possible to have a great winter ski vacation in this area? How many people think there are big, jagged peaks in eastern Nevada…or, of the Great Basin as a ski destination?”
Royer did, for one.
In the early 1970s, he traveled back and forth between California’s Bay Area, where he grew up and spent his summers, and Utah’s Wasatch Range, where he was a ski patrolman in the winter. The glimpses he had of the Rubies as he traveled along Interstate 80 intrigued him. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be some great skiing out there,’” Royer recalls.
His vision was 20/20.
The riding in the Rubies is spectacular. After the last ice age glaciers departed, the range was bequeathed with an array of steep cirques and deep U-shaped canyons. And with its crest rambling between 9,000 and 11,000 feet, the Rubies catch a lot of moisture from wintertime storms, producing upwards of 10 feet of snow each season.
But the best part is that with the desert climate and cold winter temperatures, the snow is super dry, the kind of fluff that ski-resort marketers in the mountains and states farther east like to brag about.
Combine that with 200,000 square miles of pristine terrain ranging from open-bowl to aspen groves to stands of white bark pine and spruce, mix in access via a six-person Astar B3 chopper, and you’ve got a great recipe for winter adventure. “We don’t try to compete with those Alaskan (heli-ski) outfits,” says Jamie Laidlaw, one of the half-dozen or so guides Royer employs. “We leave Alaska to the rad daddies.”
In other words, Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience is not considered extreme skiing, just extremely good skiing. “We like to say we can take any ability,” Royer says, “as long as no one gives up on us or lets their head get in the way, we can give them an enjoyable backcountry experience.”
The experience incorporates a rundown of the dos and don’ts—the paramount of which is to mind your guide and the helicopter’s rotors—boarding the chopper, a fairly quick run to a nearby ridge, a short discussion of which route to take down, whooping it up while making many swooping powder turns, catching a breather at the designated landing site, and climbing aboard the chopper (mind those rotors).
Repeat. Again and again.
The three-day package (the usual length of a visit) guarantees 39,000 vertical feet of skiing and snowboarding—about seven runs, enough to make a person feel the burn at the end of the day, at which point you’re treated to an underrated part of the deal.
The after-hour diversions—specifically, the lovely aromas and yummy treats that emanate from Francy Royer’s kitchen—are why people return to Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience year after year (Joe says 80 percent of his guests are repeat customers). “This is definitely a dream come true for me,” says Francy, who before joining her future husband as a guide was trained as a pastry chef. “Designing meals for hungry skiers is definitely challenging, but it’s a good challenge. We have a different menu each night, so it’s important to be very creative.”
That hospitality is not lost on guests.
“A big part of the experience for me is that Joe and Francy go above and beyond what is necessary to make sure we have a pleasant experience,” says Robert Capps of Squaw Valley, Calif., who has been making annual sojourns to the ranch since the late 1990s. “I’ve been to other heli-ski outfits, and this is totally different. Here, you feel like you’re at a friend’s house. [The Royers] have a great attitude, and they go out of their way to find you great skiing and make sure you have a great time.”
Which is very satisfying for Joe to hear. “We want to make this the greatest winter ski experience in anybody’s life,” he says. “We really care about our guests.”
An informal, feel-good ski experience in northeastern Nevada.
A few miles north of Elko lies Nevada’s least-known winter-sports resort, Elko Snobowl. At the end of a snow-covered dirt road that’s essentially an extension of Elko’s Fifth Street, the Snobowl has an endearing funkiness to it. The resort’s sign, for instance, is a huge granite boulder with the name white-washed on the side—a sneak peek into the Snobowl’s charm.
There’s one double-chair lift that takes skiers and snowboarders up the summit’s 650 vertical feet and a couple rope tows that access a learning area. A small building serves as a warming hut/repair shop and rental facility. Skip’s Snack Shack, a trailer that’s often still hitched to a pickup truck, dispenses hot food, cold drinks, and $20 lift tickets.
All the employees—lift attendants, ski patrol personnel, instructors, and parking lot attendants—are volunteers who keep the nonprofit resort in operation on weekends and select holidays. The riding is intermediate skill level, but the snow conditions can be sparse—this is the high desert after all. But a day at the Snobowl is like going back 30 or 40 years, when skiing was a less manicured affair.
It reminds me of the days when I skied the mom-and-pop resorts of the Sierra Nevada as a kid in the 1960s. The Snobowl is truly a place out of time and well worth the visit.
Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience
P.O. Box 281192, Lamoille, NV 89828
3-day package: $4,100 per person:
Three nights lodging, double occupancy; meals provided except arrival-night dinner; guide service; ski rental; guaranteed 39,000 feet of vertical skiing.
1-day package (available Thursdays only, Feb. 5 to April 2): $1,325 per person:
Includes arrival-night lodging; breakfast and lunch; guide service; six runs.